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Anna’s Hummingbird

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This is a photo of an Anna’s Hummingbird I photographed on my X0th birthday…

Never expected to see an Acorn Woodpecker in Oklahoma

It was a great way to start the new year — hearing that an Acorn Woodpecker had been sighted at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, OK. This woodpecker species can sometimes be seen in New Mexico but is much more familiar to birders in Arizona!

The sighting in early January 2012 was only the third ever in Oklahoma — the most recent being more than 40 years ago.  This male Acorn Woodpecker was spotted by a refuge biologist at his residence within the wildlife refuge. He had just gone through the death of his dog and had placed left over dog food at his bird feeders. The Acorn Woodpecker may have been around for some time but went unnoticed in the 60,000 sq. mile refuge until there was dog food waiting at a feed!  He was certainly the most birder-friendly rare bird I’ve ever encountered.

Sightings of this beautiful bird continued from early January through March 2012. No one is certain if the bird left or is simply finding enough to eat that it doesn’t need all the dog food and acorns (donated by visiting birders).


Anna’s Hummingbird

First year male Anna's Hummingbird

I was heading into an October weekend to celebrate my birthday with rain in the forecast and a huge desire to get in a birding trip when Kurt & Sharon Meisenzahl posted a message on the OKBirds listserv announcing the arrival of a male Anna’s Hummingbird at their backyard feeders in Lawton, OK.

I had no definite plans for my birthday trip anyway — go to the Salt Plains and try for Sandhill Crane photos, or Hackberry Flats for ducks? — so I did what I often do: slept on it.  I told myself that if the Anna’s was still at the Meisenzahl’s on Saturday morning, I’d go to Lawton instead. Sure enough, the bird was there, along with a very rainy day.

I drove the 90 miles to Lawton though a lot of heavy rain asking myself how crazy it was to expect to see a very rare Oklahoma sighting of a Anna’s in a rainstorm.  Fortunately, the rain let up a little when I arrived although the sky was certainly dreary. And, sure enough the little bird perched in a tree within minutes of my arrival!  He was cooperative and not at all skittish. My challenge was to try to get photos with low light, light rain and no sunshine to highlight the color.

Anna’s Hummingbirds are native to the western United States. I don’t know what brought this first-year male to the center of the country but it gave me a chance to add a new bird to my photo gallery and enjoy a wonderful rare Oklahoma sighting on my birthday.

This photo was taken from the second floor deck overlooking Kurt & Sharon’s backyard.  The flash of color was a godsend since the sky was still overcast and the angle from the deck gave me an opportunity to photograph the bird with leaves, instead of dull sky, as the background.

The bird looks like he is molting into adult plumage so the combination of molting feathers and rain give him a ragged look.  But I’ll take it!!

Baby Barn Swallows

In my previous post about the Barn Swallow nest, I wished that I had been able to see the young ones in the nest after they hatched. With a little patience, and prolific breeding on the part of the Barn Swallows, I got what I wished for! In late July, the same nest was in use again and on July 28 I discovered two very young nestlings.

Barn Swallow nestling

I’ve photo newly-fledged Barn Swallows before and thought that hatchlings would look similar — not so.  The two little ones weren’t bundles of cute white fluff.  Or really very cute at all…  but once I got over the surprise at seeing dark little masses of feathers, I remembered that most beautiful birds start out rather homely.  Since it’s not for me to judge how baby birds should look, I’ll stop thinking this is one ugly baby 🙂

I don’t know the age of this young bird; Barn Swallows stay in the nest for 18 – 23 days after hatching.  I will ask more advanced birders to estimate the age.

Barn Swallow nesting

Barn Swallows are very common, even in the urban areas of Oklahoma City. I see them in large numbers around Lake Hefner, my daily birding escape, but I don’t pay enough attention to them.  I realized this after finding a Barn Swallow on a nest this spring and learning that I had never taken a “nest shot” of this species. My bad for taking them for granted!

So, here is a nest shot which I think is fairly typical of a Barn Swallow nest in Oklahoma (notice the red clay construction). This one was located under the eave of a building.

Barn Swallow at the nest

I do wish I had been able to capture images of young birds from this nesting but it just didn’t work out.  I did get to see a pair of fledgling Barn Swallows at another area of the lake.  So, here is a shot of what young fledglings look like, yellow mouths making them distinctive and easier to determine the age.

Barn Swallow fledglings (hungry)

And if the yellow mouths and begging didn’t confirm that these two were newly fledged, the in-flight feeding by one of the parents confirmed that these two were not yet old enough to fend for themselves.

Barn Swallow fledglings being fed by a parent

Is that incredible delivery or what?!!  In order to photograph the actual feeding I’ve learned to focus the camera on the youngsters and, when their begging sounds more urgent, start snapping photos even though I don’t see the parent. This feeding maneuver is so quick (feeding only one fledgling per trip) that it is impossible for me to capture the picture if I wait until I see the adult.

Do you know this baby bird?

This photo was taken June 22, 2010 just a few hours after this young bird left the nest box.  I don’t think I’d be able to ID this fledgling, especially from this angle, unless I paid attention to the tail feathers.  Could you?

I’ve been spending time during the past few weeks monitoring two Baltimore Oriole and one Eastern Kingbird nests at Lake Hefner while my OkieBirdCam friend Terri Underhill has been keeping up with the great bird activity on her wooded yard.  She called yesterday with news that the “babies are fledging” and with pictures and videos.  I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see the baby birds. And, seriously! once I saw them I couldn’t believe how unidentifiable I found them.

These young birds are the size of a small sparrow while their parents are about the size of a Northern Cardinal.  The baby birds I’ve seen (admittedly not that many) are usually about 80% adult size when they leave the nest, e.g., Mockingbirds, Robins, Eastern Bluebirds…

The tail feathers are rufous — that’s the best clue; plus the belly is yellow. It lacks the white wingbars of the parents. Okay, I’m sure many wouldn’t be as stumped by this as I would be !  Yes, it is a Great-crested Flycatcher.

This species is the only eastern flycatcher that is a cavity nester.  Its breeding range encompasses the eastern half of the North America from Florida into Canada.  Oklahoma is the western edge of its summer range making it a bird that

Great-crested Flycatcher fledgling showing yellow belly, rufous tail and crest.

the state’s western neighbors find rare.  Terri had a pair successfully nest in a hole in tree two years ago. Last year the nesting, in the same hole, was unsuccessful — she thinks due to intense heat and sun.  So this year she put up a nest box near the nest hole and the Great-crested Flycatcher adults found it to their liking and started home-building duties.

The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds page on Great-crested Flycatchers says that this bird’s nests often include snakeskin. Terri will be able to examine the nest box later and find out what nesting material was used.

Terri had seen two baby birds do a belly flop out of the nest box onto the ground — by the time I arrived, she was convinced a third bird had fledged and set out to find it. This second photo shows the little one in a Blue Spruce below the box.

Great Horned Owl - Baby without a nest

Great Horned Owl chick

Great Horned Owl chick

Since Great Horned Owls start nesting in January — one of (if not the) first nesting birds of the year — the winter doldrums are helped when I can find a nest to watch and photograph.  My OkieBirdCam friend, Terri Underhill, is always looking for nests and usually has much better luck than I do. And this year she found a great one — across the street from her home in Edmond.

A pair of Great Horned Owls had nesting in an abandoned Mississippi Kite nest, high in a pine tree.  Oklahoma isn’t known for having many pine trees so it was interesting to see two baby owls swaying in the prairie winds from high in the pine.  When Terri and her grandchildren found the nest in late February, there were already 2 very small chicks.  When I first had the opportunity to see the nest, the babies were getting pretty large and were taking up what little room there was in the nest.

In late March a winter storm came through and what little nest the birds had was gone… and the two young owls were nest-less and sitting in the pine tree during some strong Oklahoma winds. Homeless owls! But with monster feet that can really grip!

Within days, Terri discovered only one of the young ones was left and the not-so-little owl was wonderful to watch as he posed quite patiently while I took photos in early  April.

Great news from Terri this week — when the remaining young owl disappeared, she searched through her neighborhood and found both of the young ones in a much more suitable cottonwood tree a few acres from the pine tree. Although they’re growing and are getting flight feathers, they won’t fly for several months. This means they moved location on foot, most probably under the direction of their parents.

Harris's Sparrow – a Winter Favorite

Can you believe that when people think of Oklahoma, they often think it’s the armpit of the country… or at least close to that?!!#$   (It doesn’t help that the state’s two senators are… well, who they are!)

But when birders around the country think of Oklahoma, they have a much more favorable impression — because we have several birds that are hard to find elsewhere.  In the summer, we count on showing visiting birders the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (state bird), Mississippi Kite and the very rare Black-capped Vireo (more on this bird in upcoming posts).

Harris's Sparrow

Since we’re almost through with winter, I wanted to show off a bird that is often “top of the wish list” for visiting winter birders: the Harris’s Sparrow.  What’s great is that these sparrows are plentiful in winter, easy to find, and visit backyard feeders. The Harris’s is the largest North American sparrow and is quite stunning!

The other winter birds that Oklahoma is known for?  Well… how about the Lesser and Greater Prairie-Chickens; all four Longspur species — especially Smith’s, and the beautiful Harlan’s and Krider’s morphs of Red-tailed Hawks.

Not bad, huh?

Yellow-billed Loon: What's with the neck?

Loons and gulls… those are what keep me sane during the winter season.  Lake Hefner, one of the Oklahoma City municipal reservoirs, is only a few miles from my house and a great place for birding.  During the winter we often get ~6 Common Loons and — really exciting for me — Thayer’s, Herring, Glaucous and Lesser Black-backed Gulls (in addition to the Ring-billed Gulls).

I have spent many, many winter afternoons driving around the lake looking for the gulls and loons to photograph.  This year, however, the loons left during our bad winter weather in late December and the “special” gulls have been very difficult to find.

Yellow-billed Loon, 06 Feb 2010

I was so excited then to be at the lake late Saturday afternoon, just before sunset, and find a Yellow-billed Loon. This is a rarity for Oklahoma.

I saw my first Yellow-billed Loon last winter and experienced birders told me it was a once-in-10-years sighting. So, a repeat sighting this year when there are no other loons around was completely unexpected!

Yellow-billed Loon, 23 Jan 2009

Notice the neck on the loon I photographed this year and compare it with the loon from 2009. What’s with the plummage on the neck?  Both birds are immatures and the white, clean neck is typical plummage. This year’s bird has considerable darkening and even a really dark patch.   I’d very much like to hear from people more familiar with Yellow-billed Loons and learn about this variation.

Anyone know what’s with the neck?!

The Snow Bird

Dark-eyed Junco aka "Snow Bird"

This little bird is often called the Snow Bird because it is reported to come to southern climates ahead of the winter snows.  I’ve had an abundance of them at my feeders this winter and this week’s ice, sleet and snow storms created a perfect landscape to showcase it’s reputation. These birds are very adept at scratching through snow to find seed and this little guy is barely visible from its spot inside one of my footprints in the snow.

The bird is now known as the Dark-eyed Junco. But during the late 18th and early 19th centuries when John James Audubon was describing and painting the birds of North America, it really was called the Common Snow-Bird. I’m not yet sure when or why the name was changed (I’ll do some research) but many birds’ names from centuries past were changed in the last century to more closely match the same (or similar) species in Europe.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are found across the county in different races, based on plummage or location.  This very snowy little bird is a slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco.  I’m excited to have several Oregon race juncos in my yard this year — a rare bird for me to see.  I’ve been busy taking pictures of the birds in the snow and will add an Oregon one later to compare the plummage.